Our natural desire to get on with others is no bad thing, but what happens when people-pleasing starts to hold you back?

As human beings, the need for social connection is hard-wired into our brains, so it’s no wonder that most people place huge importance on being liked. It’s a normal, healthy response to value relationships with others, and what they think of you.

As therapist Kara Nassour points out: “It’s in our genetic makeup to need approval from others. Throughout history, humans have survived cooperatively, and being expelled from your community would usually lead to death. Even today, our brains process social rejection in the same way as physical threats, and try to protect us by making us pay attention to other people’s opinions of us.”

However, in our modern society, life is not so simple, and sometimes the desire to be liked can manifest in unhealthy ways, getting in the way of goals and dreams, and using up precious energy that could be spent elsewhere. Many of us were brought up to be ‘people-pleasers’, to think of others not ourselves. While this has its benefits, taken to an extreme we can lose touch with what our own needs and interests are. It can stop us from knowing ourselves.

Ultimately it’s when we nurture ourselves, and ‘put on our own oxygen mask’ first, that we can be better resourced to care for others. Counter-intuitively, we need to liberate ourselves from the need to be liked by everyone in order to fully show up in our relationship with ourselves, and others.

So how can we do that? Here are some essential ideas to help you break free from the people-pleasing cycle.

What do you want?

What do you want in life? Are there any areas where needing to be liked is holding you back? Perhaps you want to launch a new business, but are nervous about promoting yourself on social media, or handing in your notice to a job you’ve worked in for years.

Here’s a simple exercise to explore what you really want to do, and who you really want to be:

1. Write the ‘naughty’ version of yourself. Don’t hold back.

What would you do, who would you be, if you could be free of worrying about what people will say? Exaggerate and really go for it, even if the persona you create is someone you’d never actually be in real life. This can really help to get liberated from your conventional, everyday self and any expectations of others.

2. Read back over what you have written, and look at it more realistically.

Some of what you have might be completely wild and unobtainable, but you may find that there are some dreams and goals that you could really go for. Is it possible that other people’s potential reactions are holding you back? Is there anything you can do to take a step towards your goal? Journal your thoughts.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Try this writing exercise to explore what you’re afraid of. If you take steps towards a dream or goal, what’s the worst thing that can happen? What are you afraid of? What’s holding you back?

Many of our motivations and fears relate to something that has happened in the past. Perhaps the response of school friendships, or the need for approval from a parent or older sibling.

It can be helpful to talk this over with a therapist, or journal any thoughts. Spending some time exploring and letting go of feelings from the past can help untangle things, so you can make a new choice in the present.

Authentic friendships

Being who you want to be can invite new, authentic friendships to blossom, based on your own values and who you really are. If you find that you don’t have much in common with the people around you, it may be a sign that new friendships may be waiting for you if you can let go of the desire to be adored by everyone.

Therapist Kara Nassour stresses that it’s important we don’t try to live without caring about people’s opinions completely. After all, that goes against our nature as human beings. Instead, she says: Think about whose opinions are worth caring about. Who are the people you admire and want to emulate? Who are the people who like you for who you are? Flip the script: not everyone you meet is worth trying to please. They have to prove they’re worth your attention, too.”

Try this journaling exercise. Write down a description of your ideal friend. What attributes would they have? How would they react to the choices and changes in your life? Would they cheer you on, and offer positive encouragement? Write a description of your ideal cheerleader friend, and imagine how it would feel to have someone like that in your life.

Sometimes our fears and concerns about how people will react to us are based on very real experiences with them. At other times, the fears may be unfounded, and based more on our own past experiences, and our worries that history will repeat itself.

It’s good to remember that people might not react in the ways you’ve feared, and even if they do, you don’t have to let that stop you.

If you have a dream or goal that seems ‘stuck’ and isn’t moving forward, it might be worth asking yourself if other people’s reactions could be holding you back. Recognising this can be key to letting go of the need for other people’s approval, or fear or disapproval, and living the life you’ve always wanted.

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